Michael Cisco (1970 — ) is an American writer best known for his first novel, The Divinity Student, which was published by Ann VanderMeer’s Buzzcity Press and won the International Horror Guild Award in 1999. Since then, Cisco has published The San Veneficio Canon, The Traitor, The Tyrant, The Narrator, and The Great Lover. Taken together, these books represent the greatest oeuvre of any late twentieth/early twenty-first century writer of weird fiction — all the more remarkable because of the difficulty of sustaining the visionary quality of such narratives over the novel length. Shorter work, such as “The Genius of Assassins” (2002), included in our The Weird compendium, is often harrowing and hallucinogenic , and ventures far beyond most writers’ comfort zone. We’re proud, therefore, to provide a tantalizing glimpse at three new unpublished novels by Cisco. Please note that the text in at least two of these excerpts is still at the draft stage. - The Editors
THE WRETCH OF THE SUN
The haunted house is, among other things, a manifestation of the concept of secrecy, which encompasses both concealing and revealing. A house whose ethereal visitants and ethereal occupants are never discovered, whose secrets are kept perfectly, and whose invisible contents never become visible, will not acquire a haunted reputation. Maybe the most well-known haunted houses are the ones populated by the most incompetent ghosts. Does this mean that we only know the botched jobs? The blunderers, who can’t keep a secret? If so, it would suggest that the really excellent haunted houses are the ones in which nothing out of the ordinary ever seems to occur. On the other hand, it might mean that a secret must be known in order to be a secret; a secret is precisely the known thing. The open secret is the thing that everyone knows without knowing that they know, and is the biggest of secrets.
To be known for haunting, a house must conceal a secret imperfectly, and it must be the secret itself which, by its very nature, and not primarily through any other agency, persistently resists concealment. A haunted house draws attention to the existence of its secret, and will even go so far as to provide some inquirers with what appear to be clues to the unravelling of its riddle. That riddle, however, can never be unravelled. It’s just activity, enjoyment. The Gothic novel took the form of a whirl of stories within stories, explaining one story by means of another, which then stood in need of an explanatory story of its own, and so on, building a house of cards with no foundation but storytelling. In the ghost story, the tale of an encounter with an apparition is followed by the explanatory story, recollected by the decrepit former servant or extracted from a suggestively incomplete archaic document, which identifies the lovers who committed suicide or the hanged man or the abandoned child. But knowing what these ghosts once were tells us nothing about what they are now, where and how they exist, or what their experience of events is like. Why should natural laws bend to serve what appears to be at least human justice? The story is explained by means of unexplained explanations, which only open out onto deeper mysteries.
A haunted house is a house with its own story. A ghost is someone about whom stories are told, who is unable to tell his or her own story. Death can be understood as the inability to tell one’s own story; whether that death is literal is another question. Ghosts exist in imagination, which is real. A story, to be a told story, needs a listener or reader. Ghosts, as I have been saying, appear to need someone to whom to appear. So we discover the story of the suicides, and we solve the riddle alongside the narrating busy body of the story, and bury the bones together in one grave; the disturbances cease. But a house once haunted will always be haunted; it isn’t the disturbance but the story that haunts it.
The haunted house draws attention to the secret it keeps like a master who teases his pupils with unanswerable riddles. Or like secret police, who can’t be entirely effective if they are entirely secret. These aren’t questions that contain their own answers, like math problems. I do not have the answer any more than you do, because the answer isn’t in the question, the answer is to leave behind the idea that a question is a door that an answer pulls finally shut. Once we’ve dutifully recited to the last syllable every thing we know, we are chastened or even taken aback by the paltry incommensurability of what we’ve just said with the haunted wealth that extends within and without us in all directions. At that moment, the suggestive ambivalence of a story will have to seem truer than the abbreviation of a hollow answer.
Public drunkenness, disturbance. The call comes in on the car radio halfway through the afternoon and A. and his partner respond. The streets dart by, the car lurching over the dips. B. pops out when they reach the plaza, a cold, nervous, flinching feeling inside him. They both made their man at once: dark skin, loose white shirt, standing on a bench, shouting, flourishing a handful of paper above his head. He made them, too, jumps down and tears off into the park where their car can’t follow and no time to drive around to the opposite side and anyway this park opens along its length to the outskirts of the modelsuburb. C.’s partner curses and the two of them start pounding after him on foot.
“Le-het’s sto-hop him be-he-fore h‑e ge-hets t’the ro-hocks!” his partner says, running hard.
Now D. catches sight of two more officers on the right. Up ahead, the soles turn up one after another, so fast it doesn’t seem humanly possible. His shirt is a shimmering, jagged white flame in the air.
He gets clear of the park, across the macadam road, and into the rocks. E.’s partner curses some more, half-strangled. Two men in plain clothes are getting out of a car parked on the macadam. F. has never seen them before, but they’re obviously plainclothes. No driving after pamphlet boy now, not on those rocks. He’s angling toward the beach. The two weird plainclothesmen are running and pointing and yelling orders.
“Stop him!” What is this? Six officers for a vagrant?
Their man zips down and out of a depression filled with air shimmer in the heat of the day, a mercury pond seething there, and his outline goes crazy, like a reflection in a flexible mirror. The sun keeps getting brighter and brighter, salt in G.’s eyes and his whole field of vision is turning into pink flash photos – the blood of his own eyes hues everything he looks at.
The weird plainclothesmen bark “Drop it!” over and over.
Which makes no sense the guy isn’t carrying anything his hands are up in the air like he’s just kicked a goal. There’s a sound like popping stitches. H. glances to the side and nearly tumbles over the rocks, the two weird plainclothesmen, who had actually said “Drop him!” are firing at the back of an unarmed man with grease guns they must have kept slung round their backs. His partner is clumsily dragging out his revolver, too. What is this? Up ahead the man streaks across the ground – he seems to dance in place, as though his shaking outline dodged the bullets and his arms go higher and he stops, spins.
– They shot him!
– He whirls spinning with his arms in the air!
– The others rush up, stop, shoot, rush, stop, shoot!
– Now he sees it! He’s seeing it!
– She’s coming down in a pillar of sun! There’s thick dark hair, heavy bangs, and beneath them, the sun, where a face should be!
– Her body is a dress made of light shells!
– Her pink hands are floating down toward him!
– She’s embracing the vagrant!
– She’s four times his size!
– She’s got him! She’s carrying the vagrant off into the sky! Cradled in her arms like a toddler!
– He erupts in hysterical laughter and stutters taunts at the police “Putas! L‑l-locos! Maricones!”
– Kicking out his legs fifty feet off the ground!
Bright as it was, the light gets a thousand times brighter it crashes down on him in waves like a million panes of glass smashing him in the head one after another after another and the pieces are flickering all around make a whirlpool of sparks their glints lance the brain like bullets and now white out like a snowstorm and he can’t hear anything but the whistle in his ringing ears …
Section One: a beingsmileduponprocess
It’s one thing to contemplate going beyond. It’s another to begin, to take steps, to enter into practice. At that point the decision has already escaped itself. I can’t say where my steps are tending or whether this practice will ever stop feeling unreal, because I have only to stop for it to stop. Nothing apart from this artifice of mine keeps it going.
I must never forget my practice, that is, lose sight of it however briefly, although I assume that an instant of forgetfulness is no great lapse. These instants must simply be kept to a minimum and prevented from assembling into a snowball. On the other hand, I must intend to forget my practice, because its purpose is to become my new nature, so that I won’t be able to explain or think of myself in the old way.
A new nature. How is it even possible to want something as momentous as that? Stop being human. Leave them behind without disgust, without anger, any of these merely human things; achieve instead the inhumankindness of what?
What I do isn’t important. My name and so on are unimportant. The point of the practice is to take me away from humanity, if only in my mind, by altering my way of thinking. This is to be done by changing established associations for new ones. It’s vitally important that I do this without bitterness, without rancor, or any other misanthropic feelings, or, at least, not because of these feelings. Not necessarily without emotion at all, but it should tend away from the kind of petulant and sullen emotions that will finally only hem me in a circle of human reaction. There should be no clear prior idea of the goal; at this early stage, that would be nothing better than a human fantasy. I have a direction, not a goal.
I walk when I think. I’ve walked thousands of miles in my apartment, thinking. A sound for my downstairs neighbor to hear, crossing and recrossing my floor, and a thready trapezoid of light beneath the door. I suppose the interruption my shadow makes in the light, causes it to rake, like a lighthouse ray, the space outside my door, a space that is always pitch black, even in the daytime.
The sensation would often recur, my eyes going out of focus slightly, or a slight rotation, the disharmony, the world rolling around me and my view just catching up, like the last moments only of a fading dizziness. It’s as if the world I see around me were projected in front of my eyes, and, on some occasions when I get a little dizzy and I turn my head, it’s as if there were a brief lag before that projection swings into place before my eyes again. I see nothing in that instant before the image slips back, but I’d swear that it’s brown, like a brown fog ocean. Not in front of anything.
This probably isn’t important, but I have to record anything unusual as it occurs, because one doesn’t always see the meaning right away. That means there will be things in the record that go no further; I don’t want to assume I can know whether or not they will come to life and go further when, if ever, I return to them.
The new scheme of associations and meditation shouldn’t mirror anthropic convention in opposition, but entirely differ. There should be two different maps, or one, the old model, is a map, and my more novel one will be another way of organizing information, in narrative form. The less conspicuous the difference, the better. For causes that have more to do with intuition than reason (if those really are two different faculties), I am sure the best difference would be so subtle that it could go unnoticed. Only the one who made a careful study of my statements and behavior would be able to detect it, and realize then the great difficulty involved in understanding what I mean by the seemingly obvious and ordinary things I say. But then, I’m not all that interested in being understood, or in flummoxing people either. The idea is liable to bring a smile briefly to my lips, but that’s all. This change is something I want for myself, in all selfishness. At the back of it is a need I don’t care enough to try to identify; all I care about is meeting it.
I live my whole life against my own grain. Left to my own devices, I’d spend most of my time wandering in my imagination, happily. At the same time, I also go against a grain that I’m not so sure is my own. My thoughts have no order at all. They don’t let me sleep. There they go, and I lie there utterly unable to make head or tail of any of it, or even to account for the sheer speed and wild variety of my thoughts. Any attempt I make to intervene only agitates the whole still more. Eventually I get up and drag on my clothes.
And I’m out walking. The book of Lieh-Zi says: “The highest man at rest is as though dead, in movement, he is like a machine.”
I often feel some ‘mysticism’ almost congealing into a gospel inside me. This could be a very common, and commonly overlooked, experience, or it could be even more rare than the emission of an actual gospel.
Still walking. I had to get out for a while. It’s late enough now, and the streets are about as empty as they ever get. Empty enough to be inviting, without being empty enough. Why is the presence of other people so exasperating?
I can’t ignore them; I hate to feel that I’m one of them, I mean only another one of them. Hitting on a satisfactory answer, such as this, is a relief, but how can I know the answer is satisfactory? I mean, it’s difficult to know just what it is, in me, that is being satisfied. Perhaps it’s something that shouldn’t be satisfied. The raw sunlight, the alien street in which I am ignored like vermin, all that is inevitable, given a certain mode of production. How do I explain to you the silly voice that fills my head with crazy riddles and wild fantasies, emotions from nowhere, that this is my most precious possession, and I’m afraid I’ll lose it in this numbing inundation? When the pan pipes play and the banshees call, I go.
Tonight, I see rows of arches, sombre, grey-blue and darkened, the only thing that seems like a part of another dream, abandoned in this one. By whatever it is that sweeps away dreams in parts. The arches run under the railway trestle, which towers over me. The passing cars in the streets are anti-dream; I try my best to shade them, but their lancing beams of light hunt my eyes. I turn my head toward, let’s say, a group of houses, far across the park, and just at that moment a car pokes its glaring snout out from between two of them. Even worse are the people, who seem as if they couldn’t possibly have stepped out of any dream at all. You would never see them in a dream; they are entirely too characteristic. So little around me offers the relief of seeming like a dream. Just tourniquetted and constipated life.
Above me, the clouds are making more clouds. The wind, weather, these clouds that glow against the dark sky are always from dreams. As I restlessly walk the streets in the dark, for the first time in years, right now I feel the dim suspicion of magic and of being the center. Something returns to me and pushes back against whatever keeps closing oppressively on me. The arches are still those colors, and they still span empty spaces.
I don’t need or want to be redeemed, I think, what I want is a discipline. My eyes defocus for a minute, and everything is filmed in shimmering particles. What is the discipline? The dream is the discipline.
Is this a dream?
No, comes the answer.
Time and again, without even a moment of blessed hesitation: no I am not dreaming. No dream is so monotonous, uninventive, gratingly particular, unrelievedly mean, and without highs or lows: no I am not dreaming. Dreams are never as indifferent to logic as this, whatever it is. A dream may be confusing, but it never loses my attention like this does. I’ve never had a dream I couldn’t be bothered with, or in which I found myself wishing that I were dreaming, dreaming anything.
What is at work around me is steadily withering my dream, and that cannot be allowed. With its sickening ignobility and its tedious insistence on what it thinks is important; if only it didn’t linger on, spoiling me for thinking about anything else even when I have the opportunity. No, I’m not dreaming. Not yet – the vehement thought breaks in on me – not yet am I dreaming, but, by a practice, I will expand the dream to engulf what surrounds me, which I demote to a momentary aberration. Simply calling whatever is around me a dream won’t accomplish anything; you have to live the dream as a dream.
I pass the arches. People go by me on the sidewalk, but I keep my eyes trained on remote objects, or on the ground, or out of focus. They want me to see them, and be distracted, these makeshift people. They could be a lot more convincing. I see my own silhouette in the light of a passing car, and I nearly forget. An inimical force is blowing on me, with each narrow housefront I pass, blowing numbness into my mind. The image, comparison, I nearly dislike for its grandiosity, but the streetlights really do look to me like the embers of a tragic conflagration, in which unique things have been lost forever.
Now I’m on the far side of the arches. I am several paces behind a man with a loose, swingy walk; he wears a short raincoat, a bag hangs down his back from a shoulder strap. There is a blue light there by his ear, must be his phone. He has it jammed against his ear, perhaps with his hand or perhaps with his raised right shoulder. He moves with an exaggerated freeness, and I begin to suspect he is either drunk or very tired, hurrying to stay ahead of a collapse, until he reaches home. I catch sight of him just under the arches, and I cross the street, climbing the gravelly slope between their legs, to leave him behind.
I stop and look down the length of a long passage carved by the arches, lit from below, rumbling, like the gates of hell. Go through that gate, and end up where? What does it matter where, if I am still the same? Is this person limited to celebrating or narrating or being a wretch, or is this the more typical, indefinite-type person with vaguer properties? Do I want a terrible, empty world to explore? Why recoil angrily from people, and regard them as trespassers? Am I a secret proprietor?
There, across the river, a huge flame dances in the air, right by the curve of the elevated track. The magical feeling comes back over me as I look at it, down the long green breast of the meadow in the dark to the still leafless trees, the river like a furrowed brow of iron, and the flame shrinks and ruffles itself out again on the far side, and the dim stars peer down through the glare up above.
Coming back from the park, off to the right, the smoke stacks of the power station pray out a long plume of luminous vapor. The dim black sky, the bridge decked out in hanging lights, are all beautiful. In my mind’s mind I’m telling the spell I want it to go on. I want to participate. It’s as though there’s a simple choice, you participate in one or the other, and I want the other. I want it because it blocks the one.
I pass a street that is uncharacteristically empty all down its length. It’s like a long, bowed corridor, a dog’s tongue, roofed over by the bare trees. And he, the man I’d seen some time before, with his swingy walk, steps out into that street about a block or so away from me. He is very cinematically framed in the middle, stepping out into this emptiness, and suddenly his knees buckle. His whole swingy body swings backwards. He drops and his head falls straight down, striking the pavement with a noise I can hear from here, ringing like a hollow gourd.
I run over to him. He’s lying there like a house of cards that’s been smashed. As I draw near there’s a clamor in my head. The roaring mob of my thoughts is jabbering each loud and clear. The streetlight goes out disobligingly just as I reach him. In the dark, I fumble with his clothes, trying to drag him out of the street. He’s dead weight. By his weight, somehow by his strangely excessive weight, more than it seems a man of his size should weigh, and by his perfect slackness, I know he’s dead.
White Spaces Black Letters
This stretch of my way is not romantic or unromantic. Engulfed suddenly in shadow. It’s densely crowded with black figures crossing and uncrossing my path, silhouetted against the white light on the shadow’s far border up ahead of me, and when I emerge I find a book pressed into my hands — this book. Yes, with these words, not one missing, not one added. It’s an easy enough thing to check, see, since they’re the first words.
Inside the Front Cover
Inside the front cover there is a table which records the illegible names of the students who have used this workbook before. An adjacent column lists dates of possession in sequence, specifically dates of acquisition. There are no dates of return.
The language which is the subject of this work book has been given any number of valid names. In this work book, we will usually refer to our subject as unlanguage of unknowing. There will be exceptions to this policy, however, because the student must not become too attached to any one name, nor is it of any benefit to leave the student in ignorance of the others, which include: lingua obscura, enigmatica, oraculo, youming yuyan (language of the quiet depths), lugha al lughz (language of riddles), bhasa sammudha (bewildering language), confusion, phantasmagoria, parabolica, eavesdropia. The language that dies, of perennial leavetaking. Language that is the closest of all to what is outside of it. You will learn this unlanguage. As everyone does, sooner or later [frag].
A long, thick rope of fluid, which ran down my leg a couple inches before it congealed. The scab covering half my knee must have torn loose along the bottom sometime, sometime early on, when I was walking out here, with all the flexing and unflexing of the joint, and this stuff leaked out. Leaked out, and hardened.
I kneel on a tuft of grass, pull up my pant leg, and examine. A hot stalagmite or tite I can never remember, the downhanging kind. I touch the scab. It’s dry, and hot underneath. I brush the surface lightly; press, and very slightly roll it under my finger. Brown-orange and custardy grey. Some hair matted into it, too. I could tear it off, but it’s the only thing stopping up the crack in the scab. My body made this nameless thing. Made it, without my being at all aware.
There are graduated contours of roughened white skin all around the scab like surf around an island, viewed from above. These white outlines mark the contraction of the wound as the skin repairs itself. If I tore off my scab, my body would manufacture another. It has to. The action is blind.
This special language slides over everything and grips nothing, not even like water, not even like time or air. It’s a dimension. It sleeps. God doesn’t use it, and neither does humanity. Unlike other languages, this one does not seem to require a user; unlanguage uses itself. One studies this divinatory language to hear what it says, not what it is used to say. One does not consecrate oneself to the study of this language to inquire after the location of toilets and train stations, to transact business, or to decipher ancient inscriptions. This unlanguage is neither dead, because it continues, nor alive, because it is never used. Therefore, it is an undead language. It came into the world unnoticed and unbaptized. There is no way it can die, and no life for it.
Unlanguage only superficially resembles occult jargon. Occultism never imparts anything new.
It’s sunset — a bluff over the ocean. The sky streaked with bands of dark orange, brown, vivid yellow — the Second Person, just a silhouette, close by, with wind-ruffled hair and an open collar. He comes up to me. The wind rattles in my ears, the surf sloshes monotonously — for one instant it’s all too clear, the opposite of that murkiness turned inside out and become annihilating clarity I am barely able to experience. The Second Person looks around; suddenly everything seems to return to normal.
This is a memory. I’m here, in the present, remembering this, which took place in the past, but I still use the present when I describe it, because I wish I could go back to that moment, before I found this work book and doomed myself by reading it. My experience of remembering, and your vivid imagining of this scene, are not so easily told apart.
Remember, this is your story, or it will be. These words have been waiting here for you and you have only just caught up with them. This is a warning. If you read on, you read on against this warning.
“Enjoy your walk?” he asks.
“Fine,” I say, straightening up, letting my pant cuff fall.
“Your leg all right?”
He’s waiting. I notice he has crossed the fingers of his left hand.
“Starting out I felt great. I went full on NM right away, and then I went light.”
NM stands for Negative Machine, a mental state of relentless advance with no secondary purpose, no secondary anything. You smash through every obstacle, like a freight train. You can’t, of course, but the idea summons all of your villainous tenacity. Going light, by that I mean the wind, the exertion, the brilliancy of the bygone day, seemed to knock everything out of my head and leave it ringing like an empty wineglass, and to knock the hours out of the day.
“It was like I was hearing the Wolves chanting me on.”
The Wolves were a group of doomed ascetics; the Second Person had been one once. They lived in a cabin in the woods, mummies blearily gazing down from the rafters and burrows dug under the ground, and they ran miles every day. Miles and miles. Every day. Miles and miles. Chanting into dawn and into dusk. It made them hard as ice. Males and females, mixed. If any of them wanted to fuck they had to do it in front of the group and they had to do it in Negative Machine.
The wind whips the sky into a chaos of white rags, as if he emerges out of this, or is that me?
“It’s time you learned unlanguage,” the silhouette says, handing me this book.
He learned it from his teacher, a louring figure who overshadows our every encounter like a sinister island on the horizon. I don’t know what his work book said. Always there on the horizon, his teacher, like the living incarnation of monster island.
Normal grammar and rhetoric maintain that there is a level of minimal significance, beyond which there is nothing more to be gained by breaking down sounds or signs any further. The rhetorically atomic level is not attained by subtraction alone, but by addition also of the logical operator “atomic,” which presents an obvious problem. A sign or sound alone may be atomic, but, with addition of the operator “atomic,” that sign or sound is now two, therefore subject to at least one more decomposition, therefore no longer atomic. This problem does not arise where the periodic elements of matter are concerned because the designation “atomic” belongs to the order of rhetoric, which is distinct and different from the periodic order. However, where the thing designated is itself rhetorical, the order of the operator is the same and the contradiction arises, as two elements of a common order are combined by the process meant to isolate them, plainly demonstrating that decomposition is continuous, rather than punctuated, and that it is not composition in reverse, but rather altogether another mode of composition.
Phantasmagorigrammar decomposes normal grammar, producing meaning as it is released and unbound, not as it is limited and directed.
Science, and any objective discipline for that matter, wants univocality, which means it wants to produce meaning with maximum generality. Polyvocality is an alternative to univocality, but not its opposite; avocality, which is the utterance of exactly no one — no person at all, speaking — is the thing that stands equally opposed to both. Avocality is impossible and is the mode of impossible expressions, which take the form of apparitions in the interstices of univocal or polyvocal expressions. Whoever employs the avocality is calling speculatively, as if adopting a point of view that is unattainable by any real speaker; avocal expression is an unverifiable approximation made possible by the decomposition or inversion of univocal or polyvocal expressions. Very often a univocal saying will rule out certain possibilities; these cancelled possibilities may take the form of an anti-coherent, tacit alternative. The one who speaks avocally strives to achieve an impossible perspective, in the hope that, the experiment succeeding by pure luck, the person, body and soul, of the speaker will actually undergo translation into that impossible life, will actually achieve literal transformation. A change in one’s lexical parts. The change may be fleeting, the thing of an instant, but there are some who believe that what can be seen and remembered as a consequence of even a single successful experiment of this kind will improve the odds of later trials, and that what may not be possible at a stroke may be achieved gradually by compounding increments. The compilers of this work book hope that it will make the benefit of such experiments available to the student.
Put another way, the student who learns unlanguage will know how to hear and how to use the voice or voices that so many writers have testified “spoke through” them. What is said by a voice or voices of this kind must be relayed; like the story of the Ancient Mariner, it compels the recipient to speak or record it, and so unlanguage is sometimes referred to as “mustlanguage.”
Unlanguage is already present in all languages. It translates English into English, Spanish into Spanish, Greek into Greek. Unlanguage has a family line and a history of its own, alone equally related to every other language. Alone of all languages, it is in this one only that mysteries can be communicated without they cease to be mysteries. Unlanguage takes by giving, gives by taking away, and, in this course, you will become adjusted to its restless and irregular grammar.
The course is divided into units, each of which will explain an aspect of grammar; each unit includes a reading, and space has been provided for the completion of exercises and for student notes.
At the end of a relentlessly long drive — nearly to the end of the line — the building, rambling and drab — pale lights in only a few of its many windows — silence of ceaselessly whirring air vents — tall, narrow white corridors of institutional plainness and squareness — pipes below the ceiling — paint peeling on the walls becoming pink and inflamed — wan fluorescent lights in trays — thin, sour odor of decomposing flesh — a metal door like the rest, with its thick integument of blue paint and an arrow slit. The school is not elegant; it’s like a gas station.
The classroom. Everyone else is carrying the book from the shadow, too. Only half the lights are working, all at the back. The light shines past us and I am looking into my own shadow; the front of the class is a black cloud. A smudge of white dimly glowing in the murk in front of me. It’s like gazing down into the sea, or into night from a high crag.
From somewhere inside that cloud, from time to time, a lamp appears and its glow is swept along a word written in shaky letters on the white board. The hand that holds the lamp is almost hidden in the shadow of its lid. The cloud is incense smoke. The wisp of incense smoke folds, elongates, turns, passes steadily out of sight with a mechanically even movement. The index finger points.
The voice — the teacher is at the head of the class, over toward the right, and keeps retreating into what appears to be a tent, or canvas booth. Like an isolation tent. He seems never to leave. Perhaps the hand I see is not his, but a helper’s? An iris adjusted to the gloom will discern a pair of faint lights side by side, now up near the peak of the tent, now high on the wall by the board, now on the floor beside the tent. They never stray far from the teacher, and no amount of careful watching will ever catch them moving. The teacher faces the front, like the rest of us, and his voice is projected forward in waves that the board drives back, back over the teacher, back toward us. The other students are shadows, like me. We’re all anonymous silhouettes. Some bend with a sound of frenetic scratching that I hope is only the noise of pen nibs, others are so still they might be props.
Forever I’ve been haunted by the idea that language is after life and we speak read and write ghosts. I ask myself what do I want here. But that I want something, and expect to get it, is not something that I need to ask.
The teacher draws breath rheumatically, and from his lungs comes the sound of wind whistling in the bare branches of trackless woods. He speaks, and from the floor at his feet comes the sound of splattering blood.